Until I read Daniel Boulud’s fine new book of advice for young chefs who would like someday to create a first-class restaurant like Boulud’s own four-star Daniel, in New York, I didn’t know that a farmer in Pennsylvania raises poulet de Bresses—the milk-fed, blue-legged chickens that are a staple of French haute cuisine—or that Roger Vergé the great chef-proprietor of Moulins de Mougins, with whom Daniel once trained, braised his lamb shoulder slowly overnight in a casserole sealed with bread dough so that the aroma of rosemary, basil, thyme, and bay leaf could not escape, not to mention the Middle Eastern accents of star anise, fennel, cinnamon, and orange peel. Neither did I know—though I had often heard rumors—that first-class restaurants, like Daniel’s three places in New York, barely break even on food but make their profit from wine which he, like other elite restaurateurs, buys when the vintages are young or unknown and relatively cheap and sells later when they and their prices mature.
Daniel Boulud, whose first book I published 10 years ago, before his fame had fully blossomed (the jacket photo was shot in my kitchen where he and I have occasionally cooked together)—has written a primer based on his own experience for would-be chefs still in their 20s, their culinary habits as yet unformed. Letters to a Young Chef, however, will interest anyone who cooks. Like the letters of advice to a young poet written by the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, from whom Daniel borrows his title, Daniel’s advice is Zenlike in its rigor. Rilke tells his would-be poet: “Look inside yourself and ask what commands you to write, and if the answer is ‘I must,’ ” then “live your life accordingly: your whole life even at its most humble and indifferent hour must reveal this impulse.”
Change the word “write” to “cook” in the sentence above and you have the essence of Daniel’s wisdom. “You go into cooking because you find it pleasurable. But business always comes before pleasure,” he writes. Young cooks who may find the unforgiving discipline of a busy kitchen daunting should remember that “praise in a kitchen is the absence of criticism.” Be prepared to work from morning till night. Learn your skills from masters, like the prep cook, Chepe, who could shell “three cases of peas by the time a young cook had done a pound,” or his Japanese colleague who “had the greatest precision.” As Daniel writes, he could “slice radishes for our cucumber soup blindfolded and they would look as if they had come out of an expensive mandoline.” There are two lessons here, one overt—sharpen your knives—the other implicit—watch your pennies. The best mandoline in the world costs a hundred dollars or so, about as much as a spoonful of beluga or a few shavings of white truffle at this year’s insane prices. Even so, if you are lucky enough to hire a first-rate knife man, maybe you can not only save the cost of a mandoline but get the most out of your costly ingredients, for you must “use every shaving of truffle, every last caviar egg, every slice of foie gras … waste is the restaurateur’s enemy.” In a four-star kitchen, precision and speed must become second nature. After 30 years Daniel still hears Roger Vergé calling “Plus vite, encore plus vite!” No one had to teach Daniel about parsimony.
Andrée Soltner, the great chef-proprietor of Lutèce, would ask a young cook applying for a job to make him an omelet. “I agree with Chef Soltner,” Daniel writes: Does the young cook “beat the eggs with a fork so that they are aerated but not foamed”? Does “he have a sure hand with seasoning … and mix little bits of cold butter into the egg mixture”? Does the applicant know “that only one pan in the kitchen is used for omelets,” and that it will be a well-seasoned black iron one? Does he heat the pan “until the steel is very hot, [then add] clarified butter or a touch of oil” and then the eggs, which he stirs fast enough “so they do not curdle” with a fork in a circular motion while moving the pan in opposite circles “until the eggs are a runny consistency”? Does he rap the pan crisply “against the burner to even out the eggs into a smooth unwrinkled blanket, and seconds later, lift the handle of the pan and roll the omelet”? Does he then tap the handle to roll the omelet onto a plate? If he does all this perhaps he gets the job.
“You must look inside yourself and find desire,” Daniel writes, echoing Rilke. “If you have it then you will make the sacrifices and endure the criticism. … It is hard work to become a chef, (but) the clatter of the kitchen, the intense aromas, the mix of languages, the precision teamwork of the kitchen brigade when the service is really rocking … make me feel alive and charged in a way that nothing else can. … So yes, you work until you are bone tired, but there is nothing else you would rather do.” Then, if you have learned your lessons well, opened your own place and prospered, you will find joy in “layering a light lime gelee” in a glass, and adding “a mix of fresh and stewed strawberry, a tart lime whipped cream with strawberry granite and rhubarb ice cream,” accompanied by a “warm rhubarb turnover.”
Of course it’s also possible to become a successful, even a great, chef and/or restaurateur without following Daniel’s example. Patrick O’Connell, the magnificent chef/proprietor of the Inn at Little Washington in rural Virginia, one of the world’s great restaurants, began cooking for friends in his dilapidated farmhouse, then more or less stumbled into catering for neighbors, and finally opened his restaurant in an abandoned garage, guided at every step by his innate genius. Alice Waters also started out cooking for friends, and, with their encouragement, opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. That these chefs were self-taught, however, is not the issue. The self-discipline, the genius, and the love they brought to the task are what Daniel’s elegant little book is really about. So, follow the wisdom offered by both Rainer Maria Rilke and Daniel Boulud. Look inside yourself and ask why you want to cook and if the answer is because you must, then you will have taken the essential first step if not toward your own four-star restaurant, then to some fine meals for your family, your friends and, of course, yourself.